Liberians in Minnesota are making a last-ditch push to save a little-known deportation reprieve program, lobbying on Capitol Hill and issuing a plea to local employers.
The March 31 expiration date of the program, which has allowed natives of the West African country to stay and work in the United States since 2007, has spurred anxiety in one of North America’s largest Liberian enclaves. Community efforts led U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican, to team up with Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation in urging the Trump administration to extend the program — called Deferred Enforced Departure, or DED.
In recent months, the administration has started phasing out similar protections for several Central American countries. Officials and administration supporters argue that programs designed to be short-lived reprieves had remained in place for years or even decades after the upheavals that first triggered them, in some cases shielding people who came illegally or overstayed visas. These decisions make DED’s prospects murky, local Liberians say, even as they tout the program participants’ deep community ties and outsized role in the metro’s workforce in nursing homes and other health care sectors.
“We all live in fear,” said Christina Wilson, a north metro DED recipient. “We don’t know what will happen after the 31st.”
Wilson came to Minnesota to visit a sister living here in 2000, as civil unrest gripped Liberia. Her asylum application was rejected even as three siblings were accepted. But Wilson qualified for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a reprieve program opened to Liberians in 1991 and again in 1999, when the brutal conflict there flared up anew.
With a bachelor’s degree in management from her home country, Wilson started work as a nursing assistant at the Saint Therese Senior Services home in New Hope more than 15 years ago — a job she says she fell in love with. She sent money to her three children, who stayed back in Liberia with their grandmother.
In 2007, several years after Liberia’s civil war ended, former President George W. Bush ended TPS for Liberia but allowed those in the program to remain on DED.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn’t know the number of people in the program, but back in 2007, the agency estimated about 4,200 Liberians would be eligible. Some community leaders in the Twin Cities believe as many as several thousand live in the metro, primarily in the north suburbs.
DED has been extended six times. “Every time it’s coming to an end, you can’t sleep,” Wilson said. “But this one is the really scary one.”
The Trump administration has signaled a shift on temporary reprieve programs, announcing in recent months that it will wind down TPS for Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador. Officials say they are restoring the program to its original intent: to briefly harbor natives of countries rocked by natural disasters and civil strife.
Dan Cadman, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, an influential Washington, D.C., group that advocates for reducing immigration, says it’s time to end DED as well. Despite a setback dealt by the Ebola epidemic in 2013, he says former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Sirleaf Johnson presided over major strides toward stability for Liberia, underscored most recently by a democratic transfer of power.
“Despite the idea that DED is a ‘temporary’ reprieve, it has existed for years and years — something not lost on the American people, and exactly the kind of thing that erodes confidence in the rule of law,” Cadman said.
Local Liberians counter that after years of living legally in the United States, DED recipients are deeply enmeshed in the Twin Cities community. Some run small businesses and have children who are U.S. citizens.
Jamie Gulley, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, says more than 1,000 of the union’s 35,000 members are Liberian, including Wilson, and that at least several thousand Liberians work in health care locally.
The union doesn’t know how many rely on DED, but members are anxious about the expiration date. Last weekend, the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center held an immigration workshop for about 50 union members, many of them Liberian, that covered what to do if placed in deportation proceedings and other topics.
“These members are a vital part of our health care system,” Gulley said. “This would have a pretty significant impact on the care Minnesotans rely on.”
Part of the challenge for DED advocates is the program’s low profile, says Abena Abraham, a University of Minnesota student and former DED recipient.
“Folks are familiar with TPS; they know about DACA,” she said, referring to the Obama-era deportation reprieve program for young immigrants. “But DED affects such a small number of people.”
So activists like Abraham have sought to inform employers and the state’s congressional delegation. A group traveled to Washington to meet with lawmakers this week. Louise Stevens told Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith about working two jobs for more than a decade — at a care facility for people with intellectual disabilities and on a medical assembly line — to support her daughter, now a college student, and buy a Brooklyn Park townhouse.
“I am almost 60 years old, so how can I start all over again?” said Stevens, adding that Liberia still grapples with a high unemployment rate. “Everything I have is in this country.”
Paulsen recently signed on as the only Republican cosponsor of a proposal by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison to create a path to citizenship for some Liberians in the United States, which Ellison has introduced repeatedly since 2011. Klobuchar, with Paulsen, Ellison and the rest of the DFL delegation, also wrote to the administration this week arguing for a DED extension.
“The thought that just like that, the people who have been caring for your parents and grandparents will vanish is an outrage,” Klobuchar said at a Friday event with Liberian community leaders.
But Abraham says advocates feel their best hope is a longer grace period for DED recipients to explore other routes to stay or prepare to leave, similar to a final 18-month period the administration granted Salvadorans.
Some in the community say DED recipients will stay if the program ends, slipping into the immigration shadows. But Wilson says she would go back to Liberia, where she now has four grandchildren.
“Some people are saying they’ll stay anyhow until they are pushed out,” she said. “But I can’t live in fear.”